Despite nurturing an impressive stable of both local and transplanted boxers in recent years, Eye of the Tiger Management and Camille Estephan have been firm in their stance that tigers don’t fight tigers. Pre-coronavirus, that made at least a modicum of sense. Between imported talent like Arslanbek Makhmudov and Sadriddin Akhmedov, as well as homegrown boxers like David Lemieux and Steven Butler, there was purpose in trying to guide their boxers towards world rankings, title shots and, hopefully, big paydays. But, after flagship local fighters like Lemieux and Butler plateaued or stumbled at the elite level, it was clear that the strategy of feeding their tigers a steady diet of foreign journeymen not only wasn’t paying off, but was also starving Montreal’s fight scene of intriguing match-ups and domestic rivalries.
It took COVID-19 for Eye of the Tiger to finally get creative with domestic matchmaking, which has been the only avenue where even a typical boxing cynic could criticize the country’s leading promotional outfit. With Canada tightening its borders and public health completely sidelining combat sports for months, it made perfect sense to try and create new opportunities from within EOTTM’s existing roster of talent. And so we were given the “Four Aces” tournament, pitting junior welterweight talents Yves Ulysse Jr., Steve Claggett, Mathieu Germain, and David Theroux in round robin action, followed by a semi final elimination match for the right to fight the opening phase’s top performer. Last night in Rimouski, we got the first round of bouts.
In the main event, a spiteful Yves Ulysse (19-2), whose indifference towards the media is compellingly apparent, laid an absolute beat-down on Mathieu Germain (18-2-1), stopping him in seven lopsided rounds. With the win, the talented Ulysse claimed the NABF title and, more importantly, provided clear evidence that he has overcome the petulance that led him to overestimate his natural talent. In his upset defeat to Ismael Barroso last December, Ulysse fought a maddeningly “cute” fight, relying on slickness that never came close to neutralizing his opponent’s greater effort. It’s clear he learned a valuable lesson from that setback and his dominant performance last night was, for Germain, the painful proof of his newly acquired wisdom.
Ulysse pitched a shutout through five rounds as he toyed with Germain in what amounted to an intense spar between stablemates who clearly dislike each other. Ulysse appeared to relish walking his rival down, imposing his will when he wanted to, and making it clear he was Germain’s superior in every respect. In the most encouraging takeaway from this fight for those still backing Yves’ world title aspirations, Ulysse took his performance to another gear in round six, upping the intensity, and in the seventh he demolished Germain with surgical combinations, knocking him down with a vicious right hook and flooring him again with a blinding flurry. Germain appeared to hurt his leg, but it hardly mattered; the referee saved him from taking further punishment and that was that: Ulysse by dominant TKO in round seven.
This performance only reinforced what has become apparent in recent days, namely that Yves Ulysse is quietly but supremely motivated to crush the competition now that he’s locked into this tournament. Indeed, it’s impossible to argue the fact that he is the most gifted of the four competitors. It’s also apparent his trial by fire partnership with John Scully has unlocked something vicious in him. That’s a scary prospect for the others in the Four Aces field, especially if Ulysse relishes punishing opponents the way he humiliated Germain with trash-talk during the fight and after. Yves Ulysse is a changed man, and while it seems to be for the better as a fighter, one wonders whether there’s an impassable chasm between him and the other participants. But let’s not crown Ulysse just yet. His “transformation” wasn’t remotely tested by Germain. The real challenge, in the form of Steve Claggett, still awaits him.
In the co-feature, Claggett (29-6-2) broke down a game David Theroux (16-4), forcing a corner retirement after six wildly entertaining rounds. The entire battle was fought in a proverbial phone booth, with Theroux finding success early thanks to a vicious and sustained body attack. But while the first four rounds yielded a split, Claggett was just warming up. It became clear towards the end of round four that the brave and willing Theroux had gone for broke against a fighter whose stamina and work rate he knew, deep down, he couldn’t match over ten rounds.
While admirable and certainly entertaining, Theroux’s tactics cost him badly in round five. Suddenly sapped of energy and having lost all snap on his punches, Theroux became a sitting duck for Claggett and his shifty inside angles and high-volume punching. The sixth was even worse for Theroux, as he simply retreated to a corner and took steady punishment, barely surviving the round before his corner ended the bout.
It should be noted that this card moved far more swiftly thanks to lessons learned from Eye of the Tiger’s first pandemic show. Disinfecting the ring went much faster, the breaks between bouts had more purpose, and the main event started shortly after 10 p.m. And while Simon Kean’s hand injury scratched him from the card, we also saw former Canadian amateur standout Josh Wagner (7-0) end a five-year layoff to school Raphael Courchene (8-1) in a mild upset (not so much in hindsight), and heavyweight Adam Dyczka (3-0) decision Jaye Byard (0-2) in a sloppy but fun fight.
So, what to make of all this? Most felt Yves Ulysse was the clear favourite heading into this tournament, and his performance against Germain would appear to confirm that. However, don’t discount Steve Claggett. In both of his past meetings with Ulysse, the skilled Albertan forced Ulysse to fight his fight and, in many respects, seems to have his number. Ulysse has never been able to clearly separate himself from Claggett, and when they do fight again, it will be interesting to see how Ulysse reacts when things don’t necessarily go his way. He’s morphed into a compelling boss in the ring overnight, it seems, so we’ll see how he handles Claggett taking the fight to him and thinking nothing of his stone-faced intimidation tactics. That will be a fascinating test.
In fact, the “Four Aces” tournament has really already morphed into a showcase for not one, but two, Ulysse vs Claggett clashes, with their fourth encounter likely to come in the final. When Ulysse fights Theroux and Claggett rematches Germain we’re likely, based on Saturday’s results, to see another pair of stoppages. While we know Theroux will always show up to fight, Ulysse is clearly superior and should outbox him before breaking him down, especially if he’s anywhere near as ruthless as he was with Germain.
And despite having fought to a scintillating draw in their first encounter, one doesn’t anticipate that Claggett vs Germain II will be as competitive the second time around. Germain was disturbingly outclassed against Ulysse and appears to be a diminished fighter. At this point at least, it just doesn’t seem like he’ll have the firepower to repulse Claggett or to hang with him in the trenches. Claggett’s subtle angles on the inside and his ability to cut off the ring will force Germain to stand and fight, as in their first battle. This time, though, Germain might crumble. Of course, this tournament is so compelling because things can drastically change from fight to fight, and one upset from a guy like Theroux can propel him to the semi finals. So despite Ulysse and Claggett pulling well ahead of the pack, every bout is worth watching.
But results aside, what we finally saw here was a combination of ruthless domestic matchmaking and tremendous audience value at a time when people aren’t willing to be (and can’t be, in many respects, thanks to the pandemic) so flippant with what they pay for. The reality is that Eye of the Tiger is a great mid-tier promoter with some top level talent and The Four Aces tournament needed to happen so we can finally see who’s actually worthy of being a contender. It’s harsh, but it’s pragmatic and sound business and it also gives fight fans what they really want: truly meaningful and competitive fights. There are levels to boxing, and Eye of the Tiger has clued into the fact that there’s value in not pretending that all their fighters can be built to world level on parallel paths. Lucky us. — Zachary Alapi
Action photos from Rimouski by Vincent Ethier.